A massive fire at a hospital in Baghdad injured 110 people and killed more than 80 as officials are still searching for missing people. An exploding oxygen cylinder started the fire at the Ibn al-Khatib Hospital, an institution dedicated to serving COVID-19 patients with severe symptoms, reports The Associated Press.
Major General Kadhim Bohan, the head of Iraq’s Civil Defense, told BBC News that the oxygen cylinder exploded in the hospital’s intensive care unit, which was “designated for pulmonary resuscitation.” Nurse Maher Ahmed, who was called back to assist in moving patients out of the hospital, referred to the blaze as “volcanoes of fire.” He explained to The Associated Press that the fire had overwhelmed the isolation hall on the second floor within four minutes of the oxygen tank exploding.
Paramedics and first responders carried the badly burned victims to al-Zafaraniyah Hospital, where forensic teams will use DNA technology to help identity victims, especially those burned beyond recognition.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi blamed the fire on widespread negligence and declared a mourning period in honor of those who died, according to NPR. “I say it frankly, the incident is a violation of the Iraqi national security, and it is a setback in every sense of the word. We must not let such events go unnoticed,” Al-Kadhimi said in a statement.
The prime minister called together a special cabinet meeting to discuss the fire, its cause, and the aftermath of the tragedy, continued The Associated Press. He gave his cabinet five days to investigate the fire and deliver a thorough report to the government. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, the Iraqi government suspended Health Minister Hassan al-Tamimi and Baghdad Governor Mohammed al-Atta. The director of Ibn al-Khatib hospital, among other non-government officials, was dismissed as well.
According to Maj. Gen. Bohan, the hospital had no smoke detectors, sprinkler system, nor fire hoses to help in the event of a fire. The ceilings in the ICU were built using flammable material that helped the fire spread faster, added NPR.
CNN noted that 28 of the victims were being treated in the ICU, according to Ali Akram al-Bayati, a representative of the Independent High Commission for Human Rights of Iraq (IHCHR). The IHCHR described the fire as a “crime against patients who were forced by the severity of [COVID-19] to be hospitalized.”
Iraq, already decimated by conflict and economic sanctions, was hit hard by the pandemic. According to Reuters, Iraq has reported over 15,000 deaths and more than one million infections since they began recording infection rates. The daily average of COVID-19 cases is now around 8,000, the highest level since the pandemic started last year.
The large number of cases has made it difficult for hospitals, including the Ibn al-Khatib Hospital, to handle the growing number of patients. Reuters reports that hospitals have been struggling from a massive influx of patients and a shortage of crucial supplies like masks, gowns, and other personal protective equipment since early last year. In addition, the pandemic has worsened already existing infrastructure issues, corruption, and politically motivated violence.